Kevin Kiermaier was drafted by the Rays in the 31st round of the 2010 MLB Draft. THIRTY-FIRST ROUND.
The Fort Wayne, Indiana native spent three (2010, 2011, 2012) years climbing the ladder in the Rays farm system and spent most of the 2013 season in Double-A and Triple-A. He performed well at the plate hitting .295/.362/.434 between the two leagues, but it was thanks to his defensive abilities — he was considered the best defender across the organization — that he stood out.
Andrew Friedman and company activated Kiermaier to both the 40 and 25-man rosters on September 30, 2013 so that he could make his major league debut in that evening's wild card tie-breaker game – the Rays' 163rd game of the season. He was also on the roster for the Wild Card game. His promotion was clearly intended to provide extra defensive capacity in two must-win games.
He ultimately saw three innings of major league action in 2013, playing one inning of defense against the Texas Rangers in Game 163, and he played two innings in the 2013 American League Wild Card Game against the Cleveland Indians. His first “cup of coffee” thus came in very high pressure situations.
After starting the 2014 season in Triple-A, Kiermaier was re-called to the big leagues in May. He would go on to play 108 games for the Rays in 2014, hitting .263/.315/.450 and making his debut on the Gold Glove Award final ballot - this time for American League right fielders.
In 2015, his first full season in the majors, Kiermaier firmly established himself as a defensive star. He led the entire MLB in Defensive Runs Saved with 42 - the highest number since the statistic launched - and garnered 5.0 defensive wins above replacement which nearly doubled the total of the next-closest American League Player, Toronto’s Kevin Pillar (22), despite Kiermaier playing 194.1 fewer innings. His overall 7.3 WAR ranked third in the American League behind Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson.
Keirmaier also led all major league center fielders with 15 assists, one shy of Melvin Upton Jr.’s franchise record for a center fielder (2008).
In 2015, Kiermaier won the Fielding Bible Award for MLB center fielders, Gold Glove Award for American League center fielders, and the American League Platinum Glove Award, awarded to the best overall defensive player in each league.
Kiermaier joined Carlos Pena (2008), Evan Longoria (2009), Carl Crawford (2010) and Jeremy Hellickson (2012) as the only Rays to win a Gold Glove.
Keirmaier’s 2015 defensive season goes down as one of the best of all-time.
Injuries limited Kiermaier to just 105 games and 872 1/3 defensive innings last season. He missed two months with multiple fractures in his left hand after an ill-fated diving catch attempt on May 21. The Rays - not coincidentally - posted a 14-35 record when he was sidelined.
When healthy, however, Kiermaier was arguably the best defender at any position in MLB. He led all center fielders with 25 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) despite playing almost 400 fewer innings than the next player on the list, Kevin Pillar. Kiermaier also paced all major leaguers with a 2.95 dWAR (defensive wins above replacement). Despite missing nearly one-third of the season, he was awarded the 2016 Gold Glove award.
He posted a .246/.331/.410 line at the plate in 2016 accruing a 104 wRC+, just above league average. He also stole 21 bases and hit 12 home runs, up from 10 in 2016, despite playing 46 fewer games.
In just 105 games in 2016, KK put up: 5.5 WAR.
Time lost to injury certainly disrupted Kiermaier’s 2016 season, which also affects our ability to project his likely 2017 performance.
Offensively, the numbers suggest he was better at the plate in 2016 than in 2015. He walked more, had more power, and utilized his speed on the bases more effectively.
Kiermaier more than doubled his walk rate from 2015 to 2016. A large reason for that was the improvement of his out-of-zone swing percentage, which he lowered by five points.
Hypothetically, if he hadn’t broken his his hand in 2016, what might his numbers have been? We all appropriate caveats about the dangers of such assumptions, if we extrapolate his 2016 numbers to a 162 game season we get:
8.5 WAR, 53 XBH, 19 HR, 33 SB
This suggests that if he can carry over his offensive production from 2016 (when healthy) to 2017, he may place himself as not only one of the most valuable defensive players, but one of the most valuable overall players in the MLB.
Best-Case Scenario: Health and Kevin Kiermaier reunite as best friends once again, giving the defensive wizard an opportunity to dazzle in center field for 155+ games. He hits to the tune of .270/.350/.430 accruing 107+ wRC with 15+ home runs and 25+ stolen bases.
Worst-Case Scenario: Kiermaier takes a dip offensively. Struggles to raise his BABIP from 2016. Health is unkind again, forcing him to miss 40+ games.
So...what should we really expect?
Steamer projects Kiermaier to slash 261/.321/.414 with a 100 wRC+ while accruing a WAR of 4.4. These projections seem just about right to me, as recent numbers suggest he realistically provides a league average bat.
Regardless, one thing appears quite clear heading into the 2017 season. Kiermaier has emerged has not only the best defender in baseball, but possibly the most important player on the team. A healthy KK will go a long way toward returning the Rays to contention.